Tour operators offering holidays to Lebanon have been seeing bookings surge in recent months following the Foreign Office lifting travel restrictions to the Bekaa Valley area on the border with Syria earlier this year. The Bekaa is a magical region, crowned by one of the most magnificent Roman architectural sites in the world, Baalbek. When combined with a visit to the low-key Mediterranean-style resort town of Byblos and bustling capital, Beirut, it makes a head-spinning week’s break.
In Beirut I stayed at the Commodore Hotel, which was a haven for the press during the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war. Now refurbished, little trace remains of the drama it saw during those turbulent years.
Around the city empty buildings pockmarked by shells and bullets serve as reminders of the war. Perhaps the most graphic monument to it is the Holiday Inn – a ghostly, ruined tower in the centre, standing in stark contrast to the glitz of the new buildings that surround it.
But in many ways Beirut is like any international city. For example, my party visited a buzzing restaurant with a lovely garden atrium, T Marbouta, and it could have almost been a hipster joint in Shoreditch with its youthful crowd swigging beers and sampling contemporary takes on the local cuisine.
“Visitors to Lebanon love the warm, welcoming spirit, the food, the nightlife – it’s always very lively,” said our extremely knowledgeable guide, Daniel Abou Khalil. “It’s a tolerant, flexible, open-minded country, and with the weather, the climate, the landscapes – it’s paradise.”
Beirut’s National Museum was heavily damaged in the war but a long period of restoration has now allowed the display of a wonderful archaeological collection spanning prehistory and the Bronze Age to the Mamluk period. Highlights include a beautifully preserved Roman mosaic of the Seven Wise Men and the Phoenician sarcophagus of King Ahiram, the 10th-century King of Byblos.
At the unfussy Le Chef restaurant I tried a tasty traditional dish, Mulukhiyah, consisting of rice, chicken and the tenderest beef, which came with a bowl of watery green Jew’s Mallow spinach-like leaves that are poured on top with a dash of vinegared chopped onions, followed by a sprinkling of flatbread pieces. Serving myself the dish was a whole ceremony in itself.
During a stroll of the city, in a short time I visited a mosque (the imposing, recently-built Mohammad Al-Amin or ‘Blue’ mosque), a church, a Greek Orthodox church, synagogue and Roman ruins. That’s a good illustration of the huge diversity of this multi-layered city.
Leaving Beirut, we headed for the Chouf mountains, en route for the Bekaa Valley and Baalbek. The wild, isolated rocky scrubland, peppered with cedar, pine, oak and cherry trees, was punctuated by hardy little pink valerian plants, adding welcomed splashes of colour to the muted landscapes. We passed little villages with shops selling pigeons stacked up in tiny cages and sleepy cafes populated by young men idling away the day. Scrawny cats were always on the prowl, searching for scraps.
As we went higher up the twisting roads we were enveloped in a thick mist. Having reached the top, we plunged down into the Bekaa Valley.
We lunched at an outstanding restaurant, Tawlet Ammiq, overlooking acres of vines. The buffet-style feast included snails, meatballs in cherry sauce, pies, fish – indeed a seemingly endless selection. The food was provided by local villagers, who stood by their dishes, serving them. It was a delicious crash course in Lebanese cuisine.
The Bekaa Valley has long cultivated huge quantities of marijuana – indeed that well-known weed expert, ex-PM David Cameron, wrote about scoring ‘Red Leb’ from the Bekaa Valley in his memoirs (thankfully in his younger years rather than when he was Prime Minister) – but now more and more the Bekaa is becoming increasingly known for its wines. A decade ago there were hardly any vineyards in the valley, and now there are nearly eighty.
We visited Chateaux St Thomas winery, established in 1888. It has a little chapel, where the family that have owned the winery for five generations make a blessing before each harvest.
As we drove on, getting closer to the Syrian border, we passed a couple of small Syrian refugee camps, with makeshift tents, and huts with their roofs held down by old tyres.
Approaching Baalbek, the Hezbollah heartlands, there was electricity in the air. It increasingly felt like the wild west. There were armed roadblocks and the villages became noticeably more rural and scruffy. Posters of bearded elderly clerics, Syria’s President Assad and Hezbollah leaders lined the streets, and groups of young men darted around in cars playing pro-Hezbollah music at full blast, such as that by Lebanese singer Ali Barakat.
Young men were standing in the road, and in celebratory mood offered us coffee and biscuits. There was a lot of activity around our hotel, the Palmyra, it being near a large mosque. A tank was parked right outside the hotel – with a young soldier, who looked about twelve, commandeering the gun.
Despite the ominous setting, we were free to explore the town and the moment I stepped inside the Palmyra I knew that it would instantly enter my top five hotels ever. The long Foreign Office safety advisory ban had meant that it had had very few visitors in years and, unsurprisingly, looked a bit tatty around the edges – and full of character.
The Palmyra is a living museum, like entering the 1930s. We were greeted by an octogenarian doorman sporting a crisp white jacket, and walked into opulent yet faded rooms including an impossibly atmospheric cosy, dark bar. An old lady sits on the floor making traditional Man’oushe flatbreads at breakfast, and a host of impressive guests have stayed including Albert Einstein, Nina Simone, Charles de Gaulle, Jean Cocteau, George Bernard Shaw and Ella Fitzgerald.
Those seeking supreme comfort would be appalled that the hot water didn’t work and there was no Corby trouser press or tea and coffee making facilities whatsoever in my room, but it was a glorious step back in time, with its institutional green walls, creaky metal bed, lovely faded Persian carpets, and ancient light switches and power points.
It overlooked one of the world’s most remarkably preserved Roman temple complexes, which the town is named after. Hezbollah tee-shirts were being sold on stalls outside the ruins, and we had the vast and stunning site almost to ourselves. As early as 9000BC Baalbek was a place for worship, becoming a foundation of ancient civilisations, and a centre for Mesopotamian, Christian and Islamic as well as Roman worship.
After all the heady excitement of Baalbek, something a bit more tranquil and familiar made a welcomed contrast, Byblos. It has the feel of a European Mediterranean resort, with a pretty old town and picture-postcard port, beaches, restaurants (some in lovely courtyard settings), a souk and a few lively bars.
With a history stretching back 7000 years, Byblos is one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the world. We had the 12th century Crusader castle, overlooking the glistening blue sea, almost to ourselves. It’s surrounded by an archaeological site that includes traces of the Phoenician town and remains of a Roman theatre.
A landslide in 1922 revealed a necropolis here and when you climb in it’s like being within a mini-budget version of Raiders of the Lost Ark – you get a little thrill when you clap eyes upon a sarcophagus still in situ.
It was yet another unexpected excitement, discovering a further facet of this fascinating country.
Explore’s 8-day ‘Highlights of Lebanon’ tour costs from £1,550pp and includes return flights, internal transfers and seven nights’ accommodation. Land-only price from £1175. Departures throughout 2020. For more information visit www.explore.co.uk or call 01252 882486.
Further information: Lebanon (Bradt Guides, £16.99)